When Justice Louis Brandeis affirmed the freedom of speech in a Supreme Court decision in 1927, he was well aware that such liberty made possible the "dissemination of noxious doctrine." As Jews and Christians in Philadelphia prepared for the weekend in which we celebrate Passover and Easter, just such sickening sentiments began appearing on 84 buses in our public transit system.
These advertisements are paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-Muslim hate group. However misleading and destructive these messages may be, they are protected under the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech.
For several months now, under the leadership of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, Jews, Christians, Muslims and representatives of a wide range of religious and civic groups have been meeting to plan a response. Although we were appalled by the ads, we were equally clear that the authors had every right to tell their story. It became obvious that it was our job was to tell a better story, to craft a more redemptive and hopeful message.
And what better week than this one to do just that?
On Passover, our dinner table service comes in a book known as the "Haggadah," literally, the "telling." The story we tell is one about freedom and the message comes through loud and clear: no one is really free until everyone is free. During a long night of talking, we speak of freedoms achieved and yet to be achieved, of struggles in the past and ongoing, of the hope that someday all who are hungry will eat the bread of freedom together.
As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism, wrote in 1942 in his New Haggadah, "Men can be enslaved in more ways than one." The Haggadah goes on to talk about the enslavement of intolerance, both for those who are the subjects and those whose minds are shackled by the ignorant ideas. It speaks about "the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite mankind."
The Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach can be read as two words: "Peh sach," meaning the mouth that speaks. On Pesach, we resolve to put our mouths to work in the service of freedom and of redemption. In Philadelphia this week, we need to counter the harsh words with words of love, the mean spirited messages with words of welcome.
While the express purpose of the bus ads is to create divisions among citizens of our city, this episode has had just the opposite effect. It is bringing us all together with a shared vision of a city of "brotherly/sisterly love," expressed this week through press conferences, counter ads, websites and petitions.
Justice Brandeis would be pleased. As he put it, "the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones."
If you want to help with these efforts to drown out the hate, add your own voice! Go to DaretoUnderstand.org